The Revolution WILL Be Televised! A History of Comic Book Adaptions on the Small Screen (Part 1)

Written by Adrian Care

With every comic book cinematic release, the cries about the comic book bubble bursting gets a little louder. It seems just as many people anticipate failure and another change in trends, as there are those who lap up every instance of the words “based on the popular graphic novel” appearing on a Coming Soon poster.

Television, for some puzzling reason, doesn’t suffer from the same polarization. With a new streaming service seemingly sprouting every other day, the need for content has seen a mass-pillaging of comic book offices everywhere for new source material or potential franchise players. Audiences share the common consensus that there can’t be enough series on Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, cable, network TV, YouTube, DC Universe, Disney Plus, or whatever new network tomorrow may bring.

Series have also built a steadfast reputation since the days of The Sopranos, Oz, and the like, of being a draw for creators and performers to really let character and story shine. The more tentpoles and big budget fanfare swallow up multiplex real-estate, the more the creative genius and critical acclaim of series television thrives.

Not only is the need for content creating a direct pipeline from 32 pages to the small screen, but so too are the decades of adaptable opus’ and made-for-serializing-stories filling a market clamouring for exactly that.

But the comic book adaptation is not immune from splitting audiences’ opinions. Like with anything cultural or otherwise, what’s popular isn’t always good and what’s good isn’t always popular. An adaptation can end up being a blight on the history of a much-loved character as much as it can drive new interest to the medium.

One of the earliest comic book TV shows was the George Reeves-led Adventures of Superman that ran for 6 seasons from 1952 to 1958. Although mostly fondly remembered it was a product of it’s era. Television budgets and production capabilities were a far cry from todays standards and watching this is a stark reminder. The funny thing is that, for its simplicity, it reflected accurately the work being put out in the Superman titles of the time.

The Bill Dozier Batman TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward was as far a breakaway from the comics as you could get. It did feature a mix of Batman’s most notorious villains (and some made for TV) and was a massive hit. Almost akin to Beatlemania, the cultural impact and popularity of the show (which only aired for three seasons from 1966 to 1968) would not be repeated for another 20 years with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. After it died, it was looked back on unkindly. It seems only in recent years has the comic book audience forgiven its campy transgressions and accepted it lovingly as part of comic book history.

The 70s would see a Shazam TV iteration which was popular enough to get a spinoff of its own. Shazam! ran for three seasons from 1974 to 1976 and Isis (later The Secrets of Isis) for two seasons from 1975 to 1976. Again, for their day, they were on par with what most shows’ TV were producing, but nothing remarkable by later standards.

The first attempt at adapting Spider-man to live-action TV were short entries from 1974 on the children’s program The Electric Company. Spidey Super Stories segments were, let’s be kind and say, innovative for their framing as comic book panels. But there’s only so much you can do with children’s programming. This was followed by 1977s The Amazing Spider-man starring Nicholas Hammond. Batman ’66 gets a bad wrap but at least it was self-aware. The Amazing Spider-man is student film-level production with very little to love. It lasted 13 episodes, but if you want campy, ridiculous fun when you watch a 70s Spider-man TV show, you’d do better to feast your eyes on 1978s Spider-man from the Toei Company. This insanely so-bad-it’s-good gem outdid its American original to the tune of 41 episodes.

No, the 70s were mostly an embarrassment for comic book adaptations. Only saved by Linda Carter’s iconic Wonder Woman (3 seasons from 1975 to 1979) and Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno’s The Incredible Hulk (from 1977 to 1982). This show stands alongside Peter David’s 10 year run on the comic book as a character-defining adaptation in the eyes of pop culture. Boosting the visibility and merchandising of Marvel’s green goliath, it spawned 5 television movies (fondly remembered as childhood favourites, but not so fondly witnessed post-adolescence).

The remainder of the 80s was just as forgettable. From 1988 to 1992, Superboy received a TV series that lasted four seasons. Not the worst way to waste a week, but nothing substantial either. Think of the production values as pre-Power Rangers level. Superboy did feature TV versions of Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Ma and Pa Kent, Bizzarro, Metallo, and other staples from Superman lore.

The 90s saw short-lived adaptations of Swamp Thing and The Human Target. Following the popularity of Tim Burton’s Batman hitting theaters in 1989, a Flash TV series was produced in 1990 with John Wesley Shipp perfectly cast as Barry Allen. It was an amalgam of a few eras from Flash’s history including Mike Baron’s early run on the title. It only lasted a brief three seasons, more for the fact that it was one of the most expensively produced shows on TV at the time. Mark Hamill fans will appreciate his portrayal of The Trickster here. You could see glimpses of what he was about to do with The Joker (and even Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back’s Cock Knocker).

The 90s also gave us Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Now let’s be nice here. Running for 4 seasons from 1993 to 1997 isn’t exactly a failure, and the show was initially a huge success. Teri Hatcher was a better Lois Lane than she probably gets credit for. But this series presence had way too much influence on the Superman comics at the time (I have my own love/hate issues with this series I’ve yet to work through to this day).

Puzzlingly enough, Marvel’s only contribution to TV in the 90’s was former Malibu Comics acquisition Night Man. A poorly made superhero show that dragged itself across three seasons and into the annals of mediocrity. Dark Horse also threw their hat in the ring with an ill-advised Timecop series that only saw nine of its 13 episodes even make it to air (sheesh, poor guy).

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Check out Part Two of this feature, kicking off the 2000s to the present day environment for comic book adaptations to the small screen!